The paradox of social order

Irrationalité individuelle et ordre social. Genève, Droz, 1996

Book review by Leszek Kolakowski (Times Literary Supplement, Nov. 29, 1996):

A variety of the theory of rational choice explains social events by saying that whatever people do, their goal is the maximization (of profit, utility, etc.); thus every choice is rational choice. Minor circumstances like passions, moral considerations, constraints, social conditions, power, tradition, etc, can be set aside. If people do B rather than A, that is because they expect more utility from B. This impressively scientific theory is discussed, among others, in the interesting book Irrationalité individuelle et ordre social by Pierre Moessinger (Geneva, Librairie Droz, 1966). The main stress of the author is on the uncoordinated mass of irrational individual acts bringing about the social order, ie, a relative stability of institutions. The problem has had a long history which the author depicts briefly (from Vico, Mandeville, Adam Smith, up to Pareto and Hayek; all thinkers who pointed out that new and unpredictable properties emerge in the wholes from the interaction of components; (Hegel and Marx are not mentioned;neither are the theorists of the Gestalt). But how to define irrational behaviour? The simplest answer would be: a behaviour is irrational if is it predictably inefficient or counter-productive (but the adverb « predictably » opens a number of new questions). The author does not say so exactly; he draws suggestive examples from others who based their theories on empirical stuff (Piaget, in particular, or Festinger with his theory of cognitive dissonance). Irrational conducts of individuals does not necessarily produce social equilibrium, but often it does. Why is this so, the author does not seem to know. Neither I do.

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